Just a century after Austria repelled Ottoman troops from the gates of Vienna, a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, newly arrived in the city, wrote an opera about the feared former foe that he set in a Pasha’s harem.
In addition to the requisite arias and comic duets, Mozart also tried to include the piercing timbre of the Ottoman janissary bands, whose ear-splitting drums, cymbals and whining reeds had once accompanied the Sultans on their expansive sweep across southeastern Europe.
The result, his “Abduction from the Seraglio,” which he composed in 1782, is the most famous example of opera’s long fascination with Turkish culture, in which composers have seized on Turkish characters or settings to invoke passion and melodrama and mimicked Turkish melodies and instruments.
In celebration of this trend, the Turkish state opera has brought the Ottoman-inspired works of Western classical composers, as well as those of Turkish opera composers, to some of Istanbul’s most famous outdoor settings this month − including the Sultans’ former homes, Topkapi palace and Yildiz palace.
The festival sees Turkish opera singers in sumptuous costumes portray some of Western music’s most famous Turkish characters − such as Mozart’s Osmin, the aggressive but comic keeper of the harem.
Mozart’s operas provide the most positive depictions of the Ottoman world. At the end of “Abduction from the Seraglio” Pasha Selim grants freedom to two foreign women in his harem who were abducted by pirates and caught trying to escape with their former lovers.
In his other Ottoman-inspired opera, Zaide, a benevolent Sultan, sets free his concubine and a Christian slave who have fallen in love.
“Mozart gives a wonderful example of problems we still see today, fear of other cultures, lack of tolerance and the need to show understanding,” said Yekta Kara, the festival’s artistic director.
Gioachino Rossini’s “Maometto Secondo,” by contrast, portrays the armies of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople, laying siege to a Venetian city.
On realizing that the mysterious noble she loves is in fact the sultan in disguise, the daughter of the city’s governor despairs, and as the city falls she commits suicide.
Western composers’ experience of Turkish music came mostly from encounters with the Ottoman Janissary bands or Mehter bands, who once gave ardor to invading armies but later accompanied diplomatic missions.
A modern version of the Mehter band still exists today and performs at Istanbul’s Military Museum.
“Mozart and his contemporaries tried to use that sound, not just in a military context but also as a general signifier,” said Matthew Head, an academic at London’s Kings College who has written about Turkish music and its ramifications.
“There are two ways in which scholars look at this theme,” he said. “The first is whether composers got the music right. The second is, what does it all mean? Is it an insult, a celebration, a gesture of friendship or just fun?”
Mr. Head believes Mozart’s intentions stem from his delight in masquerade and disguise, rather than simply the desire to plead for more understanding of the eastern “other.”
“You also can’t escape the fact that Mozart strongly associates Turkishness with primitive, military masculinity, which forms the opposite of the subtle and the vocal.”
For example, Osmin, a comic figure, sings of how he has studied to behead, hang, impale, burn, bind and flay, and he urges the Pasha to burn the would-be escapees.
“Abduction” ends instead with a choir extolling the Pasha’s good character.
“People fear the other, desire to keep the other out, and I think on both sides there is even a fear of foreigners taking and playing “our” music, but we desperately need these meetings in order better understand one another,” said Ms. Kara.